Learning to Fly RC Planes – Lesson 1: Before your first plane
Objectives: Get flight simulator and controller for a computer. Practice!
In an ideal world, you would get your simulator first and practice with some of the trainer models to get a feel for whether you even like RC flying. However, I know what the rush of excitement and enthusiasm is like, and that playing with a model on a simulator probably won’t be as satisfying as actually buying a plane (did someone say “retail therapy”). That being said, if you put off buying a plane until after you have done some simulator time you will probably make a smarter decision about a plane. Either way, you should definitely put off flying your plane until after you have done some simulator time.
At this early stage, the best thing about simulators for you will be teaching you orientation (learning that the controls are “reversed” when the model is coming towards you for example) and most importantly building the mental pathways to associate particular movements of the controls with what you want the aircraft to do.
Just taking a moment to talk about these associations, what do I mean. Think about walking for a moment. You don’t consciously think about how your decision to walk is translated into your feet actually moving – you built this mental pathway a long time ago when you were a child – now it is automatic. Also driving a car (if you drive) – you make a decision to turn to the right and your mind automatically turns the wheel to the right, or change gear or whatever you need to do. These are also mental pathways that you built. These mental pathways turn desired results (I want my plane to bank to the right) into automatic control inputs (move right thumb slightly to the right to effect turn).
If you haven’t built these associations before your first flight you will crash while you are still at the controls trying to figure out what to do. How badly you crash just comes down to fate.
There is a reasonable flight simulator out there called “FMS”. Whilst it doesn’t have great graphics or physics it will teach you the first two things very well, provided you use it with a controller that is similar to a plane’s transmitter. If you use it with the keyboard you will not build the pathways you need and will find yourself taking 2-3 seconds to change a high-level decision (I need to pull up now) into a control input (pull down with left thumb) and the result will be a crash due to slow reactions. You can download FMS from its homepage – modelsimulator.com.
Once you have FMS you need to get a controller that approximates a plane’s transmitter control layout. Unfortunately, if you use a keyboard with FMS (or any simulator) you won’t be doing one of the most important things – building the association between high-level decisions (I need to turn left now!) and control inputs (right thumb pushes the stick left).
If you have a PlayStation style controller for your PC (one with two analog sticks that you can use your thumbs on) this will probably be good enough to at least get you started. If not you could either buy one of these or look to buy an item such as this which will give you the feel of real radio. Similar items can normally be found on eBay (particularly if you are not from Australia), or maybe at your local hobby shop.
What to practice on the simulator
A simulator is great fun for testing out new theories, trying new maneuvers etc, and you will do all that in time. For now though, once you have FMS get yourself a model of a trainer (once again the three here are good candidates), and just try a few takeoffs, circuits and landings. Some notes on these below.
Just quickly – some notes about setting up your TX (Transmitter). All of my instructions are based on mode 1 control layout. A diagram of this layout is on the right (click on it if you need it blown up a bit).
There is quite a bit of passion about whether mode 1 or mode 2 (or reversed mode 1 or reversed mode 2) is better. My instructions are based on mode 1. If you want to try something else, no problems, but you will need to transpose my instructions.
You may need to spend a little bit of time in FMS with the control mapping to make sure you get the correct layout. This is really important – remember we are building associations between high-level decisions (I’m going too fast – I need to reduce the throttle) and physical control inputs (pull down a couple of notches with right thumb). If you’ve trained with the wrong control inputs chances are under the pressure of your first few flights you will not be able to think quickly enough to transpose the controls.
Is all this really necessary?
At the end of the day, you need to make your own decisions about risk. If you just want to try flying without any practice or guidance if you are using an electric trainer in a sufficiently large space about the only thing you are risking are your wallet and your pride (although more extreme outcomes including serious injury/death are not impossible, though not particularly probable).
Learning to fly RC is harder than learning to drive a car for example, but fortunately, the result of mistakes is not normally quite as catastrophic.
Things to practice in FMS or other Simulator
Open the throttle let the plane build up speed, and then use a little up elevator to get her off the ground. Congratulations – you are airborne. On a simulator getting airborne is pretty easy. In real life, your takeoffs will need to contend with things like imperfect runway surfaces, planes which are not properly trimmed (and so begin turning the instant they are off the ground) and so on, but for now, it’s pretty easy.
Once you’ve done a few a few rolling takeoffs try some hand launches in FMS. This may give you your first real taste of RC Flying pressure. When the plane is “launched” you will have just a moment or two to get your act together, get the throttle on, feed in just enough elevator to stop her hitting the ground, build airspeed, and then use the elevator to climb away. See how you go.
You are airborne – now what. Now we try turning some corners. Feed in just a little rudder to see how the plane banks. Feed in a little more and try a 90-degree turn. Because you are using a trainer the plane will eventually self-correct and come back to level flight. However, you can get the plane back to level sooner by pushing the rudder in the other direction to terminate the turn.
Now – did you note how much altitude you lost in that turn. Every time your plane turns a corner it will lose some altitude – a common problem that beginners have is they get the plane to a good safe altitude from takeoff, and then lose altitude on each corner without noticing until eventually, they try a turn too close to the ground.
You can prevent your plane from losing altitude in the corner (as well as making it turn the corner faster) by feeding in a little elevator as you turn – do some practice on this until you can make your turns without significantly losing altitude.
Also practice getting your orientation right – when the plane is coming at you it may seem the controls are reversed. I find by far the best technique is to imagine yourself in the cockpit of the plane and then give inputs based on that.
It is a fact of nature that unless you have enough power to reach orbit then the number of landings must equal number of takeoffs, and the bad news is that landing is one of the hardest things to learn. The good news is that most of the trainers are pretty robust on bad landings.
When landing it is important to remember that throttle controls rate of descent, elevator controls airspeed. When you start your landing approach bring the throttle to the point where the aircraft starts to slowly descend. You can now control its airspeed by making it dive for more airspeed if it is going to stall, or pulling slightly up if it is going to fast. Landings are also a weak point in FMS – planes are not as easily broken in the simulation as they are in real life, but if you practice you will get a feel for a good landing.
At the bottom of the glide into the ground, just before you reach it, you need to flare. This final maneuver, where you use the elevator to make the model run parallel to the ground about six inches of it is designed to get rid of the last remaining airspeed until you settle into the ground gently. Practice – what I’ve said should make sense after that.
By the way, the Easystar and vortex can both be landed off the throttle – just close the throttle and dive (slightly) for airspeed before flaring. The Supercub is best landed with a little throttle (this varies from plane to plane).
Putting it all together
So try taking off, flying four corners, landing. Rinse and repeat. Along the way don’t forget to have some fun with some loops and stall turns etc.
Next Part – we talk about getting a plane and trimming it for the first flight.
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